They say “find something you love to do and you’ll never work a day in your life”. What a sweet sentiment. A sentiment, that for the vast majority of us, is just a pipe dream. Some people never figure out what it is they want to do. They never find that one thing that gets them out of bed in the morning. They research and wonder, waiting on some spark of passion to hit them, but it never does. They graduate high school and go to community college, unable to decide on a major, until they eventually drop out to pursue upper management at the retail store or restaurant they’ve been working at to pay for their classes. Some people are content to skip college entirely, get a local blue collar job, put in their time for years and years, until they’re financially stable and flexible, and are able to retire. Some people have a knack for making money. They see an opportunity in the form of a need, and fill it. Be it a specialized job, or starting a company, they put in the work and find ways to make more money than the rest of us. There are people who feel called to serve their country, in whatever capacity is needed. All of these things can be noble pursuits. We all know people in each of these scenarios, and the pathway to their career isn’t a window to their character. It’s just circumstances, life. Lots of hard work, and a little bit of luck. This is a career.
You see your “vocation” is different than your career. Vocation is that thing you can’t shake. You can’t stop doing it, whether or not it pays the bills. It doesn’t necessarily have to be because you think it’s “fun” (although it can be), but because it’s important. Teachers are often this way. They feel so moved to shape young lives, that they are willing to be vastly underpaid for their work. The same can be said for many men and women working or volunteering in humanitarian work, through charities or churches, serving in government or military capacities, helping people and working in people’s lives, giving of themselves to make the world a better place, often for little or no money. It can literally be anything. Then there are a select few of us who hit the lottery. Not the literal lottery (although that would be awesome), but the vocational lottery. That thing where you find a passion, pursue it, fall in love with it, and figure out how to make it pay your bills. Vocation is this thing that is part of your being, part of who you are, and your career is how you pay your bills. Some people figure out how to make their career pay for their vocation. The luckiest of us make their vocation their career. Then there are artists.
I believe art can change the world. That’s a big statement, but it’s true. Music, specifically, is being consumed at a higher rate than ever in history. But it’s also generating less income for the creators and curators than it ever has. I’ve been chasing my dream of being a music creator since I was 16. I’m 31 now. Let’s get real for a second, it’s been a disaster. I have never in my professional life been able to support myself or my family as a creator of music. I have always had another job. For most of that time the other job is really my primary job. I’m constantly trying to convince myself that creating music isn’t what I really want to do. Maybe I can find a career that I can be happy with, put in my time and make a life for myself and my wife. But that endeavor has not been successful either. Music is on my mind all day. It’s playing in the back of my head at all times. During conversations with other people I selfishly look for something in their personality or words to inspire the next song. I’m often distracted and forgetful. I get fidgety and restless if I go too long without playing an instrument. It’s basically an addiction that I don’t want to be rid of. It’s part of me.
Over the years I’ve done my best to cultivate my addiction to enhance my life and the lives of others, rather than have it be harmful. I truly, truly, want to put some good into the world. Money and fame don’t interest me. But deep in my soul there’s this longing, this calling you could say, to create. I am a musician. I am an artist. But the reality is, I’ve also been a Nascar collectibles salesman, a lawn care specialist, a grunt worker in a home appliance warehouse, a shipper of copious amounts of pet food, a terrible barista, a cook, a barbecue food truck operator, a worship leader, and currently a secretary/shipper at a machine shop and a pizza delivery driver. Each and every one of these jobs has made me who I am, and inspired many of the songs I’ve written. I’ve met some amazing people who find meaning and purpose in these jobs, who are inspirations to me and many in their communities. But these jobs have all also put a pit in my stomach when I wake up on a Monday morning before a week of work, or when I think about still doing them in 2 years. I don’t feel above them or too good for them, just that my mind and passions are somewhere else, often leaving me feeling like I’m doing a disservice to my current employer. After 15 years of searching, I had to be honest with myself. What I want to do, what I’m compelled to do, is make music. That doesn’t mean I’m not thankful for the jobs I’ve been given, or that I didn’t do my best at them, it just means that someday, somehow, I’d like to make my vocation my career.
But that’ll probably never happen. It probably won’t happen for most of us. The music industry is a complete disaster and it will probably never recover. Making a living is pretty much a fairy tale. I know people who have made a great living doing it for a long time who are getting out of it completely. The glory days are over, and I showed up late to the party.
Life is hard sometimes. Sometimes you work 50 or 60 hour weeks, have kids to keep up with, a house, a yard to mow, and you don’t pick up a guitar for a month. You’re exhausted and cranky. You start to lose sense of who you are and why you’re here. I know. I’m there, right now. I haven’t written a decent song in 2 months and haven’t played a show in over a year. But don’t lose hope. Do your best to throw yourself into whatever endeavor you’re forced to pursue. Be thankful and grateful for having your basic provisions met. Be honest with the ones closest to you, and love the people around you. Embrace the internal struggle you’re going through and cherish it. Let it teach you. Let it give you wisdom and patience. Let it help you appreciate things and experiences you have. Maybe we never get to live out our dreams, but maybe we can put a little love and kindness into the world, and that’s the most noble pursuit of all.
So here I am. 2013, and my band, which had been a near full time job for 8 years at least, was just over. No more evening practices 3-4 nights a week, no more traveling, no more shows. Just quiet. There were many moments of searching, and there still are. There’s part of me that’s still in that band, with my brothers. In an alternate universe somewhere none of the label disaster happened, our songs actually hit radio, were decent hits, and allowed us to make records 2, 3, and 4. In this universe the economy didn’t collapse right after we signed our record deal. In this universe we saw the world. We got to tour every continent. We got to meet amazing people. We sold records and made a decent living. We weren’t the biggest band, we didn’t make millions, but we got to live out our dreams.
The problem with that universe though, is that it isn’t this one. In our universe we were able to experience heartbreak. We were able to live through disappointment. We were able to struggle. We were able to disappear from the public eye, when we didn’t want to. We were able to create art that we knew would probably never be discovered. We were able to suffer.
There are tales of Tibetan Monks who pray for suffering. I don’t think I go that far, but now am able to see how suffering brings a depth and richness to life. We were also able to recognize the true depth of the suffering of others without undermining our own suffering. We were able to generate empathy for those around us. We were able to develop the courage to overcome our egos. We were able to love and appreciate those around us better, because we had nothing to give back to them other than love and appreciation. We gained perspective. The end of the Undeserving was not the end of our lives, or even our musical careers. It was the catapult for us to make better, richer, deeper, and more meaningful art. It allowed me to love my family and friends with a greater understanding. It allowed me to see every moment as a gift. And a beautiful, wonderful, mysterious gift it is.
You see, now my dreams have changed. I’m still chasing a dollar, trying to figure out how to pay for the next single, and trying to decide what to do with the songs I’ve been writing the last 4 years. But my heart and dreams are here, in this little house in the country with my beautiful wife and 2 boys. It’s in the toys that clutter the play room that used to be my music room. It’s in my out of tune pianos and guitars on the wall. It’s in the land my house sits on. It’s in my overgrown garden. It’s in my backyard race track. It’s in my friends and extended family. It’s in my church. It’s in the trees, the grass, the sky, the seasons, and the stars above. It’s here. What happened to us was not some cruel trick played by the universe, it was just life. And I am so thankful for every second of it, and wouldn’t change a thing. This is just the beginning.
If you want to keep up with what we’ve been doing you can follow us on our websites:
As for The Undeserving, there’s still a few lost tunes floating around. Anyone wanna hear them?
There’s a certain stress that is gone when you let go of your expectations. By mid 2012 our only goal was to have a great time. We knew the clock was ticking and unless something really amazing happened, we’d eventually have to close up shop. Our last hope was in one of the songs that we had recorded in early 2011 with our producer Allen Salmon. “Baby Run Away” was as charismatic and catchy a pop/rock song we’d ever written. We thought it was our last best chance to get the ball rolling one more time.
We decided that we would go all out for this one. We’d shoot a music video, promote it like crazy, do a bunch of shows, pitch to radio, and hope for the best. Even another TV placement with this song could give us the momentum we needed to make some more noise, literally. Through all of this, though, our spirits were high. We all came to a point where we truly cherished what we were able to do, even if we weren’t making money doing it. We became more and more thankful for the experiences in our past, and didn’t try to use them as excuses for anything. We just had decided to enjoy it, because we didn’t know how long we’d be able to.
We landed a corporate gig to help pay for the expenses of the single, and even entered into a local battle of the bands where we were pretty sure we’d win, just so we could make some cash. We won, and I’ve never felt so bad about accepting a thousand dollars. Battle of the bands is something we said we’d never do, but desperate times call for desperate measures. We took the money and put it all into the video and the song, and began to lay the groundwork for release. We needed to make enough money from Baby Run Away to pay for the next single that we had already recorded.
Now, based on previous blogs, you’re probably bracing for me to tell you story of another failure, disappointment, or series of circumstances out of our control that wrecked our plans. The truth is, we were forced to drop all of those terms. “Failure” was not possible because we had nothing left to lose. For the first time in a few years, we just wanted to make something. We knew we were limited in our experience and abilities and majorly limited in our budget, but we didn’t care. It was all about the creation of something. We realized that art in and of itself was a noble cause. We realized the idea of failure was an idea imposed by our society, and we had to let it go, as hard as it was. Now you may think that sounds like a cop out, and maybe it is. But when your dreams are on the line, you have to rationalize it somehow. We had to change our measure of success from financial to creative. September rolled around and we released the song and video. We did our best, but it hit the internet with little fanfare. The youtube video filled with comments like “why is this not more popular?”, a common theme with our songs. In October we made a run to Florida to help promote the single. We were having a great time, no stress, lots of laughs, but the song only made us a few hundred dollars, if that, and we knew that soon it would be time. Our hands were tied, more songs done, but not paid for, and the task of paying for them, even just a few thousand dollars, seemed a mountain too high to climb.
Bands break up for all sorts of reasons. Often they can no longer stand each other, or maybe they’re tired from years on the road, or the work has taken it’s toll on their families and they just want some quiet. None of these things happened to us. We were family, we weren’t road dogs, and our families were supportive. We just, ran out of money. We realized that to get back in the game would take not only extraordinary work and commitment, but extraordinary luck as well. The game had changed and success was found more easily through a retweet from Taylor Swift than actual hard work and great product. I had a one year old at home, and mounting debt from never holding a full time job so I could be in the band. Jim, Kyle, and Matt were still single and wanted to hit the road full time and see parts of the country we were never able to, and I didn’t blame them. At that point, I was holding them back.
How do you end something that has been your life for such a long time? This is what I wanted to do since I was 13. This was my dream. I had my chance, and it just didn’t work out. Whether I was a victim of circumstances, didn’t work hard enough, wasn’t good enough, or something else, it didn’t matter. It was time to move on, for the sake of our well being, and to what I didn’t know. I still don’t know. This was putting an end to a chapter of my life that had changed it forever.
December 2012 I was in charge of putting on a Christmas show at our home church. I booked Jars of Clay to come play, and our church was kind enough to let us open the show. This felt like the right time. The guys had a big tour planned for the new year, and we decided together that this would be the last show. For me, the day itself was incredibly busy. I was in charge of the entire event. All of the logistics, load ins, catering, and sound checks that go into this sort of thing ate up my entire day. The Jars of Clay guys were completely gracious and easy to work with, but no one really knew that this was it for us, and the emotions I was dealing with. We decided to not promote it as our last show because we were just the opener, and didn’t want to take focus off Jars of Clay and the Christmas spirit. We played 6 songs I believe, most of which is a blur to me now. Before the last song I said something to the effect of “this is our last song, I mean, our actual last song.” Before we knew it it was over. We shared a hug in the green room afterwards, but I was needed somewhere else because I was the promoter. After the show I was able to drive the guys in Jars of Clay back to their hotel in Cleveland where we had some great conversation. I shared with them briefly of what the night meant to me, and they were sympathetic. I remember getting back in the van after dropping them off, and driving home in silence. That was it. No big goodbyes, no party. No fanfare. It was over, just like that. Roughly 9 years we poured into it, and I would be lying if I said this ending was bittersweet. It was bitter. Like so many moments before, filled with disappointment and letdown. My identity was wrapped up in this band. I was not just Clay Kirchenbauer, I was Clay Kirchenbauer, lead singer of the Warner Brothers recording artist, The Undeserving. It was who I was, and almost more importantly, who I wanted to be. What was I going to do now? Who was I going to be? Truth is, these are questions I’m still figuring out, 4 years later. But I have figured a few things out.
To be continued (one more time)….
Here’s the video we released in 2012 after our last show.
I remember driving home from Little Rock. It was quiet for a while, as we tried to process yet another disastrous end of a tour. Then we covered up our stress with lots of jokes and laughter. We were always good at laughing, no matter what we were going through. Part of our name, “The Undeserving” come from the acknowledgement that what we got to do was a gift. We didn’t do anything to deserve to travel the country and play music, and we always remembered that. The truth is the wind had left our sails. The last few months had been a complete roller coaster. We had finally released our record, but had lost a lot of money, and missed a lot of work in the process. At this point there wasn’t a lot of direction. We were constantly sending our record to music magazines and publications hoping for a spark. The idea of recording more songs was pretty much a pipe dream, we still hadn’t paid for the songs we recorded in 2011. Internally we were struggling. All of the stress and what started to look like failure had taken it’s toll. We were tired, and stressed, and searching for direction. All we knew how to do was plug away and play as many shows as we could. We were trying to stay united while our career was crumbling.
January 2012 rolled around and Brennan told us he was leaving the band to pursue his own recording business. Brennan and I had founded this band together 6 years prior, and it was emotional. It was in some senses the end of an era. We wished him the best in his new endeavor, played an uneventful but sad final show, and were faced with a decision. Keep going, or hang it up? Kyle, Jim, and our longtime sound man/tech Matt Grabowski had a side project started that eventually developed into Last of the Wildmen, and were even playing shows and did a small tour. They were all single, and had flexibility and wanted a fresh start. I was working and had a 6 month old, and couldn’t give the band the constant attention it deserved.
But the idea of some fresh chemistry was intriguing to us. We still wanted to release the songs we had recorded a year earlier, and the only prospect to do that was to keep going. We also had some very talented friends join our group. Phil Tabor had started to do some video work for us and although he was young, we all knew he was extremely talented, and a good guy too. We had made friends with some guys from Australia, Alex Malcolm and Glen Hanbury had been helping us out. Alex even came over and stayed with us for several weeks and went on the Mike Mains tour with us. They wanted to help us out and were in the early stages of setting up an indie record label. At the time I was working part time at my church, and the opportunity for a good paying full time job was a possibility. If we were to keep going as a band it meant pulling my name out of the running for the job. So this decision wasn’t just about keeping something alive and making it a hobby, it had to be for real. We had to give it our all one more time and make it worth while. We wanted to explore new territory and see what we could be creatively. We wanted to get in front of new crowds, and most of all, we wanted to have fun. Our friend Matt Grabowski moved from our tech man to our new guitar player, and we were off.
The first step was figuring out new ways to be seen and heard. We had never made a music video before, and Phil and I had an idea for a video for one of our most popular songs, “There For You”. We started putting a storyboard together and before too long we were ready to shoot. We talked my wife into being the pretty girl in the video, but we needed a beach and a pier to pull off what we had in mind. There’s a local state park near us in Ohio, and we knew to film we had to acquire permits. We called the offices, and told them our story and what we intended, and they granted us permission to film for a day on the beach and pier. We got assurance from them that permits wouldn’t be an issue and we were good to go. So we loaded up several vehicles of people, camera and light rigs, a generator, and all of our gear and headed for the beach. This particular beach was pretty secluded, and you had to use a small trail to get there. It took us about 2 hours to set up, because we could only get so close to the beach with our vehicles, so we had to carry our amps, instruments, and that god awful generator through a small line of woods, through the sandy uneven ground, and onto the beach. We had gotten our instruments plugged in and were about to start shooting the band shots when the police pulled up. And they WERE. NOT. HAPPY.
We explained the situation to them, but they weren’t hearing it. To them, we were trespassing and were all going to be cited, and they were serious. We told them we had permission from the local offices, and they said something to the effect that the local offices can’t give that permission. One of the guys on our crew came up to see what was going on. He happened to know one of the officers, and was able to calm the situation a bit. They forced us to tear down, and go home, and waited there for 2 hours while we did. Not only were we again discouraged, but now totally embarrassed for the people that came with us to help. There were probably ten of them who gave an entire day to make this happen. People that believed in us after all that we had gone through, and here we were, about to get them arrested because of our own irresponsibility. We were relieved that we weren’t in more trouble, but again sent home, tails between our legs. Phil quickly put together a storyboard for “Cheer Up”, and it became our backup plan. We filmed it in a day, and even then were told to move our stuff after we had it all set up, but that story is less interesting. We got it filmed, knowing it was really an experiment for what was to come.
Sometime in early summer we landed a corporate gig that paid well (compared to what we normally made). We all decided that instead of splitting the money we would buy one of the songs that we had recorded a year earlier. “Baby Run Away” was a power pop anthem written by mostly Kyle, and it was the most radio friendly hook fest of a song we had ever written. We were going to put all our eggs in that basket, and hope for the best, one more time.
To be continued….
Touring. I don’t think I’ve said one good thing about it during this blog series. Truth is, I loved it, for a certain time at least. We would see friends in bands who had record labels that actually helped them. We’d see them get on a big tour, come home, then have a booking agent book them a 2 month run. The longest run the Undeserving ever made was 3 weeks, I think. We just didn’t have the means without a record or support and were always limited booking ourselves.
I did love it though. I especially miss the van rides. Kyle, Jim, and Brennan were all amateur impressionists, and my skill was laughing at them. I’m pretty sure the hardest times I’ve ever laughed were in the band van laughing at Jim on a long drive on no sleep. There is such a comradery when you’re in a band, especially one as “successful” as we were. When you struggled, you knew that there were 3 other guys who knew exactly what you were going through and when you were flying high, you had people to share it with. I miss that. I miss the uncertainty of late night driving in a city you were unfamiliar with. I miss hanging in the green room before shows with some of the most interesting and hilarious people.
I miss the stage. I miss that feeling where you are allowed, expected even, to let your narcissism completely take charge. I miss that feeling that I had every once in a while where the whole room was at my beckoned command. I miss the moments when you feel like you’re absolutely killing it. I even miss the times I messed up, fell down, tripped over or forgot my words, or made jokes that bombed. Most of all I miss that feeling of the show being over. The feeling of relief and exhaustion. I miss hanging with people at the merch table after the shows. I miss hearing their stories, and learning about their towns. I miss the adventure.
In the fall of 2011 we had but one choice: tour. We finally had our record to sell and promote, and had to get it in front of as many people as possible. We got hooked up with some friends in a band called Mike Mains & the Branches to do a couple week run through the Midwest and the south. Some of the shows we got paid for, some we didn’t, so it was vital we got people in the door and put on a good show. Our merch money would be our lifeline. I was never one for sleeping in the van, especially in the summer time, so we stayed in more than our fair share of cheap hotels. Rooms that smelled like all sorts of things. Rooms with running water that was brown. It was the life we chose, so we had a good time with it.
This particular run was fun because we shared it with good people. We got to see some cities that we had never seen before. After a show in Tulsa a guy came up to us. Only about 50 people showed up that night. The guy told us he had heard our song on Idol and had to do some homework to figure out who we were, but found us. He said he was shocked that only 50 people were there, and he was expecting like a thousand. “Welcome to the music biz” we said.
At the end of the tour we had a show outside New Orleans on a Sunday night, then the final show was not until Wednesday night in Little Rock. A day off on tour can be fun and restful. Two days off? That’s a recipe for trouble. It means an extra day of expense with no income. Little Rock was not all that far from New Orleans, so we spent Monday exploring the Bayou, the gulf, and the city, saw some gators, and got into Little Rock early Tuesday afternoon. We checked into the hotel and I asked the lady at the front desk: “What’s there to do in Little Rock?” She gave me an odd look and said matter of factly, “drink”.
We wandered around town that night, got some unforgettable BBQ, and tried figure out what were going to do the next day and a half. Wednesday afternoon came and we grabbed lunch at the city market. It was a really hip, vibey place full of millennials and good food. Matt, who was running sound for us on this tour, was single. There was a pretty girl about his age working at one of the little stores and we all pressured him into talking to her. Matt is a great guy, but it’s fair to say he’s probably a little shy, especially at the time, but he finally gave in. We all watched from a distance as he talked to her. It looked to be going well, and he came back looking accomplished. He had invited her to the show that night and seemed to think that she actually might come.
They always say you should play with the same passion for 2 people as you would for 2,000. Well whoever said that has never played for two people. I don’t remember the name of the club we were at that night, and apparently no one else did either. Two people were here to watch us and Mike Mains. Who were these people? Friends of Mike Mains who were hosting them at their house that night. We delayed the start but no one showed up. The sound guy got us ready and left. What a disaster. We could’ve gone home Monday. This is when I learned about that passion thing. We were pretty dejected and upset, and gave a half hearted performance, even cutting short our set. We were supposed to be pros and knew better than that. Mike Mains and the Branches blew us off the stage that night, and we deserved it. We packed up and got ready to drive home. The promoter walked in and handed us $4. “You sold one ticket” he said. We were confused, not sure who paid. The two there were on the guest list. No one in the other band knew anything, nor did ours. We got in the van and asked Matt if he knew. “Yes, I bought a ticket for the girl from the market, but I guess she didn’t come.”
Sounds about right.
“Well, here’s $4 back.”
To Be Continued…..
FINALLY. What else was there to say? 3 years earlier we stood on this stage in our home church and told them we were signing with Warner, having already finished recording half our record. Now here we were, finally releasing that record, finally free of Warner, and finally free to make what we want out of our future. I’ve spent a lot of time in this blog series telling you about how hard it was. Telling you about all the things that went wrong. Telling you how devastated and hopeless we felt. September 6, 2011 was not one of those nights.
We had just arrived home from a completely disastrous trip to Kansas City. We needed this release show to help pay back our cd production costs, but most of all, we needed a morale boost. We weren’t really sure how many people would come see us. The room seated about 800, and we didn’t expect to sell out, but we were hoping to at least make it look full. About 500 people showed up and I was moved to tears seeing the line of people outside the building. Up to that point we always wondered where we stood in our local community. We felt like we had support, and our social media sites drew more visitors than any other local band, even in the Toledo area, but we had never drawn 500 people in a hometown show before. Not where we were the headliner. This felt like validation to us. It made us feel like we were legit. A legit rock band who was good enough. And we felt like our little town showed up to support us. At the time, few people knew what we had been through. It was hard telling people that no, our record wouldn’t be available in Walmart and Best Buy. If their grandma in Kansas wanted a hard copy, they’d have to order on our website. In that moment, though, it didn’t matter to us.
You see, artists are inherently narcissists. We make things to prove to ourselves that we can do it, but also need validation from others before we are fulfilled, and then the cycle repeats. We had been forced without that validation our entire career. Having people show up to our release show helped us realize that the validation was far more meaningful coming from our local community, friends, and family than it was coming from any high level record executive. We had had that validation before, and it really only led to frustration. This was real, and tangible. What a feeling. Something I really haven’t felt since, at least to that extent. The show ended, there were cheers and appreciation. We signed autographs and spent time with our fans, friends and family. We were exhausted, but fulfilled. This was a long time coming and we enjoyed the heck out of it.
The truth was, this was a mountain that would be incredibly difficult to reach again, and we knew it. It’s part of why we enjoyed it so much. While glad to be free from Warner, we now were a bit directionless. We had recorded 4 new songs in the spring of 2011, but hadn’t paid for them yet, and didn’t know how we would. The best we could do was hit the road again, this time with an actual product to sell, and see if we could build this thing. This would be the ultimate test. Not just on us, but our wives and families. Everyone was still rooting for us, but the clock was ticking. It was all on us. If this was going to be our career, we needed to make it one, and fast.
(To Be Continued)
Tom Petty once said “The waiting is the hardest part”. Well, in the course of our career, we didn’t get really good at much, but we got really good at waiting. Everything we had done to this point had taken enormously more time than we predicted. Everything from making our record, negotiating our deal, signing our deal, and now getting released from our deal and putting our record out. It was Summer 2011, and we were fighting for a record that we had finished 2 years earlier.
This is the point where I give credit where it’s due. Jon Sparks, our longtime manager, went through hell for us. I’m sure I don’t even know the amount of emails he sent and phone calls he was on to get us free of our deal. We hadn’t paid him in 3 years, but he refused to give up on us or leave us stranded. When we found out in December of 2010 that Warner wasn’t going to let us have our record, he fought tooth and nail to get it back for us. I don’t know how that all went down, and I don’t know what the legal ramifications were, and I don’t know all the hoops he jumped through, but in July of 2011, we were free.
Signing release papers was so very bittersweet. I think for the other guys in the band it was more sweet. But for me, it represented some form of failure. I had to come to grips with the fact that our story wasn’t going to play out like I thought. Whatever last bit of hope for reconciliation I had was stomped out. The reality of making a living creating music that we were oh so close to realizing, started to slip away, little by little. My wife and I had a newborn and the weight of supporting a family grew heavier, as it should.
“Free” is a funny word. We were free in the sense that we now owned our record. We could do with it what we please, except use the publishing. That means that if there were any more TV placements to be had, it would have to be through Warner. This still stands today. We were free to release the record how we pleased, tour, make money from record sales. Free to try to rebuild our career on the whatever momentum was left.
But we were broke. 3 years on the label had left us with nothing. We all were working jobs and scraping by. There was no money to get CD’s pressed, get merch, and properly promote a record. The last few TV placements were airing, but whatever money we would see from that was at least a year away. Brennan’s parents loaned us a few thousand dollars for CD production. My parents and Jim’s parents pitched in for some merch and artwork. We would release in September, work our butts off, and hope for the best.
Now we needed a boost. Something to gain some cash and get the snowball rolling. Jon presented us with an opportunity. There was a big Christian music festival in Kansas City that usually drew about 10,000 people. They had a pay to play slot available between the headliners. Jon had offered to pay the fee if we could pay to get out there and play it. The idea being, we sell a couple hundred discs, recoup the fee to play, and get our music in front of ten thousand new faces. It was a couple weeks before our actual record release, but we got the discs in and would try to make back the money.
Now, playing Christian gigs was something we did only occasionally and we had never paid to play anywhere. We often joked that we weren’t Christian enough for the Christians, and too Christian for the mainstream market. We were always trying to figure out how to fit in. This was just one show though, and it was a lot of people. If we made the most of it, it would be well worth it.
We drove to KC, had some fantastic BBQ, and got to the festival. The first thing we noticed was there was less people than we were told. maybe 2500. Our rule as a band was to always expect 10% of the crowd that the promoter tells you. So, at 25% we weren’t devastated. We were playing right before Steven Curtis Chapman. We had a 20 minute set, and I thought we nailed it. Everything went off without a hitch, the crowd was into it, and we had a blast. We would head back to the merch tent and wait. A few people came back, but this was a festival. It was outdoors and dark, and leaving your spot in the middle of the set meant probably having a hard time getting back to it. SCC played, then Jeremy Camp. We were set up between their merch tables. Prime spot. We just had to wait for the show to be over then cash in.
What happened next was a microcosm of our career. About halfway through the set the wind picked up. It got drafty. Sprinkles turned to sideways rain and there was lightning. Tornado sirens in the distance. Jeremy Camp wrapped up and the crowds exited. I mean it was a mass exodus. Straight for the parking lot. People were running. Dads had their camping chairs in one hand and small children in the other. No one, I mean no one, was heading to the merch tent to support their favorite artist. There we were, sitting in the tent, watching as our bank account literally drained, and we couldn’t stop it. Helpless. Forget about paying Jon back for paying for the slot, we weren’t even going to recoup our own travel expenses. We basically drew straws for who would call Jon. I dialed, heart pounding and pit in my stomach. “How much did you make?” he asked. “About $40”.
At this point I think I blacked out, but I can assure you Jon was gracious. Now we had to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps again, and get home from KC on $40 and officially release our record.
To Be Continued
(This is blog #4the about songs featured on my new project “Creation EP”.)
“At Last, I’ve met my match, my soul is free, You belong with me. At Last”
This song was inspired by a feeling I’ve only felt a few times in my life. The feeling of complete belonging. Something that can only be brought on by an transcendent experience. Something that is always temporary, where you inevitably come back down to earth. This is represented by the short length of the song. It’s also that moment brought on by culmination of all of your previous experiences, here represented in the beautiful score by my friend Mark Evitts. (The melodies played by the strings are the melodies from the previous 3 songs).
But this song is not about those things it was inspired by. This song is about hope. Hope that someday the infinite mystery of God will not be realized, but be embraced. That we would find ourselves loved and cared for in that mystery. That we would no longer hold on to our defensiveness and certainties, but find a home in the mystery. When we do that, the mystery brings us great comfort and relief.
There is freedom in the mystery. Someday, every day, I’ll say “At Last”.
This was the hardest blog so far to write. When things are going great, the story is less interesting. It’s easier to relate with the struggle than it is the success. 2010 was the closest we ever got to success.
We were on our way home from Nashville. We had just found out our song Something to Hope For was being used in the new American Idol preseason campaign. We pulled over into a McDonalds somewhere near Bowling Green, Kentucky. This was 2010, so none of us had smartphones, and Wifi at restaurants was a relatively new thing. It took about 20 minutes to download, but Jim, Kyle, Brennan and I sat in a booth in the back of the restaurant and watched the commercial that would be played for millions.
Up to that point, our songs had never hit radio outside of northern Ohio. We didn’t have our record out, or even a song on iTunes. We literally only had the exposure that we had made for ourselves touring around the country with songs that weren’t yet available. The only place people could hear our songs was on Myspace, where we were seeing about 10k plays a day. This tv placement.. This was huge. The song we thought that had the biggest chance of being a hit would be played multiple times during key slots like big tv dramas and football games leading up to the Idol season. I don’t remember when I saw it for the first time, but I know it was on my DVR for a while. Shortly after things started moving. There were a few other TV placements. “One Tree Hill” was the second one, and local artist Crystal Bowersox made the American Idol finals, so we got to open for her big hometown show. We did a silly parody video that got half a million hits on youtube. We were doing interviews with big magazines and newspapers and local tv appearances. We played a show at Cedar Point on opening weekend. We got to go on a shopping spree in Nashville and have a photo shoot for our record.
That thing we made that got us all this. I mean, we had other good qualities, like our looks and personalities, but I digress. When it comes down to it, what got us this record deal was our songs. I know that now and I knew it then. Our outlook on writing was to write something memorable that the most people possible could relate to. This was easy at times, difficult at others. There was always a vagueness to the lyrics. We wanted these songs to be for everyone. We really did think our songs could move people, and we wanted that. We also knew that the more people there were that related to it, the more cash in our pockets. We felt like we accomplished our goal with this record. It had hit potential. The problem was our relationship with Warner was at a standstill. We were already busy writing on record #2, and we didn’t even know when record #1 was going to be released. We know there was still some negotiations going on between WB and Cause for Alarm, and that was delaying things drastically. Meanwhile, a sweet lady named Lori Feldman, who is head of TV and Film Licensing for WB got a hold of our record somehow. She flew to Nashville from NY to meet us, and was instrumental in getting our songs more television placements. Through 2010 we built momentum, but we weren’t sure for what. The tv placements were great for publicity, but in reality, they were putting money back in Warner’s pockets, and because our record wasn’t out, it didn’t really translate into sales. Every good thing seemed to have the worst timing.
Sometimes though, things just don’t go how you think they’ll go. I remember hearing about Kristina Perry’s song “Jar of Hearts”. Someone danced to it on the show “So You Think You Can Dance”. She sold forty thousand singles that night on iTunes, and signed with a major label within weeks. Our song “Something to Hope For” was finally on iTunes as a single, and it too was featured on “So You Think You Can Dance”. We sold around 700 singles that night. Idol used it again, as did some MTV shows, the Biggest Loser, and several others, but it never translated into single sales. I don’t know why the song itself didn’t take off. The lyric video did ok, but things like Shazam weren’t common yet. People would hear the song on TV and have literally no idea how to find us without googling sections of the lyrics. I remember playing a show in Lexington, KY at a giant theater. Except, we didn’t play in the theater. We played up front in the pool hall, on the floor, in front of the restrooms. People would awkwardly walk by us while we played songs that millions of people had unknowingly heard while watching their favorite tv shows. This was fairly common outside of Ohio. Warner wouldn’t always notify us of the placements, so several times our phones would blow up on a random Tuesday, when all our friends called and texted to tell us they heard our song again. We appreciated the love, but we began to realize it wasn’t actually helping us that much. We were all still working, struggling to pay the bills. Unable to take off long periods of time to tour, and trying to operate with our hands tied behind our back. The record had now been complete for 6 months, and we weren’t legally allowed to put it out. Even if we could tour, without music to promote, we were essentially driving long distances for band practice. It just wasn’t financially justifiable. Our last hope was that Tom Whalley and Kevin Law would get their stuff sorted out, and we could finally get some support from our record label.
August or September of 2010. Jon calls me.
“Tom Whalley is stepping down. There’s a new guy coming in, he’s gonna evaluate the roster and he’ll let you know what’s next.” Great. A few more months of mystery.
To Be continued…